The summer of 2001 saw Walsall lying in the sun reflecting on promotion to Division One after their play-off success. Sir Ray – white handkerchief on his head – plotted with Paul Taylor – caked in coconut oil – about the players needed to stay up next season.
Dino Mennillo was one of the signings. He was unveiled to the press. Played a couple of games in Scotland. And then was gone, before the season even started.
So what actually happened? Dino has agreed to put the record straight and tell us about what has happened to him since then.
What are your memories of Walsall?
To be completely honest my memories are difficult to describe. Whilst I was thrilled to be signed and given an opportunity at such a high level, in hindsight, I realized fairly early on that I was about five years too late. I was 25, recently married, and my wife and I had been living on the coast outside of Sydney (Wollongong) in a beautiful apartment overlooking the beach. Living in Walsall was quite a cultural shock for me initially, it was very hard to feel settled.
You joined us for approximately a week in July 2001 and went with us on a pre-season tour of Scotland where you played two games against Dunfermline Athletic and Livingston respectively. Can you recall what happened?
In actual fact, I signed for Walsall prior to pre-season starting. My trial at the end of the previous season with Bradford went really well and I was offered a good contract with incentives. My then manager of my team in Australia arranged for me to return to play in the Grand Final and stayed on with the agents to finalise my contract.
Following the Grand Final I was getting married, going on a two week honeymoon and then returning to Bradford to start pre -season and hopefully a good career in England. In retrospect I was naive, I should have signed the contract before I left. One week prior to flying to Bradford Jim Jefferies was sacked as manager and the new manager wanted me to go on trial again before honouring my contract.
My manager and the agents were able to give me four other options with clubs in the Football League. Walsall offered me a great contract without any trial conditions. My manager was keen to make some money and urged me to take the firm offer. Today I look back on that decision without regret. I was thankful to Walsall for taking the gamble and signing me, however I was bitterly disappointed that Bradford didn’t work out. I thought I made the best decision at the time for myself and my wife.
Had you heard of Walsall before joining us?
Yes I had. I would follow the divisions of English football with some interest. I knew it was close to Birmingham and in the British midlands.
‘Dino has an excellent left foot and is a good crosser of the ball,’ beamed Graydon. ‘He is very much in the Paul Simpson mould and is an exciting signing for the club’. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you know who Paul Simpson is?
I’d be lying if I said I knew a great deal about Paul, however, his name was familiar to me, and after I researched him, I could see the comparison, except , he had an exceptional career in England and I didn’t! I wish as a younger player a coach had given me greater guidance on developing my right foot. My left is like many natural lefties, it is very good but my right was never good enough.
How did you get on with the other players and the manager Ray Graydon?
Ray and the players treated me well. I was a grown man and I knew that I had to earn respect from the players and manager. Unfortunately Ray didn’t really get to see me prior to signing and I don’t think I was the player he was hoping for. I never really felt like I did at Bradford and I could see that amongst the playing group. After a few trials in Europe you can tell when it is the right fit and things are going your way. Again, it is easy to look at this negatively but I feel that the club treated me well whilst I was there and made it easy for me to move on when I wanted to.
From Walsall you went to play in Greece but never settled there and soon went back to Australia, why was that?
I went to a club called Kalithea. My coach at Wollongong was given the job there and knew things hadn’t worked out for me at Walsall. I was always sceptical about the Greek league and players not being paid on time. It was beautiful in Greece, the football was more my style and I lived near the beach. If they were honest and timely in their payments I would have stayed. I laugh now because I knew what I was getting in to! It was another life experience and I got to play with two players from the Australian League, which was good.
Your most successful spell in Australia was playing for Wollongong Wolves where you won the National Soccer League in 1999/2000. You came back from 3-0 down but missed a penalty in the shoot out before Wolves were victorious. It is a famous game in Australia – what are your memories of it?
I missed a penalty, but I laugh because no one remembers the gem of a ball I put through for a great player, called Paul Reid, who slotted home the equalising third goal with 2 minutes left! I wasn’t meant to take a penalty because I had played with the opposing keeper , Jason Petkovic, for five years at Adelaide City and I would take penalties before training for him. But, as what usually happens, the pressure was too much for some of the allocated penalty takers so I stood up. Again no regrets, I missed but it turned out OK in the end. The next year 2000/2001 I came off the bench in the Grand Final having returned from my trial at Bradford. Whilst it was great to win back to back titles, the Perth game is one that people still remember as one of the greatest comebacks in Australian football. It certainly was one of my most memorable games.
You also played for Adelaide City in the National Soccer League and the New Zealand team Football Kingz but never played in the newly formed professional league (The A-League) which started in 2005. Why was that? What was the standard of football like in Australia during your time there?
The standard is better now from a physical perspective but technically I think the game lacks players with great initiative and flair. In my era there were athletes but there were great ball players. By 2003, I’d spent two more seasons at Wollongong and my wife was pregnant with our first child. I had a degree in occupational therapy and I started to think about my future and the fact that football would not be around forever and if I put as much effort into something else could this provide for my family into the future? The A league started 2 years after I had stopped playing at national league level. I had just started my own occupational therapy business and I was 30. Whilst it may have been nice to try, I was content with how things were going for me at that time.
You had a dispute with Football Kingz over unpaid wages – is this what led you to try your luck in the UK? Are you a strong believer in Trade Unions?
Football Kingz was another great experience. Wynton Rufer was the coach who had a brilliant career with Werder Bremen in Germany, and I learned so much from him in a short time. They had financial problems and I needed to make a decision in a difficult time. Nick Theo the Wollongong coach was very keen for me to join the club and it turned out to be a great move for me in many ways. The players union was at its infancy in Australia at that time but they helped me enormously in my career. Players unions are important but like everything, there needs to be a good balance. Around the world the players unions have become very strong and in some ways the balance has seen clubs suffer at times. It is difficult to find the right balance in such an unpredictable and at times volatile world of football.
In 1995 you represented Australia in the World Youth Championship in Qatar. You played in two games as Australia got to the quarter finals. What are your memories? Did you know then that your captain, Mark Viduka, was destined for better things?
Playing in the World Youth Championship in 1995 was amazing. Qatar was hot and the conditions were difficult in the country at that time. We couldn’t really leave the hotel so we relied on the unity of the team to get us by each day, as I am sure it was for all teams then.
Mark ‘Vidukes’ was an amazing player then and we knew he was destined for greater things. I lived with him at 16 years of age at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra. I then spent the next four years touring with the Australian team with Vidukes and other great players of that era. I remember when we first arrived at the AIS as fifteen year olds and Vidukes was a great guy but he was raw, tall and was homesick. He wasn’t the best player there but every day he would spend more time than any other player in the indoor football gym working on technique. You could hear him kicking the ball against the wall in his room until three or four in the morning. It would drive us nuts. He was talented but he worked harder than any other player there. I have a great deal of respect for him as a person because I saw his struggles and triumphs from a unique perspective. Over the years I would bump in to him every now and then and it was always like it was when we were young. He is a humble, introverted and loyal person, not to mention he wasn’t a bad footballer either!
I see you still turn out for a team called Bosa SC – how is that?
Bosa is an amateur team. I’m 40, reasonably fit and I still enjoy playing against 20 year olds. I often wish I had my football brain of today with my 25 year old body but I guess most football die-hards think the same. I have just been appointed player manager for 2016 and apart from coaching my son’s team, this is the first time that I have been interested in coaching. Work commitments didn’t permit me to play for four years but over the last six years I’ve enjoyed playing because there is no money involved and it is as pure as can be. I will play until I physically can’t, I started when I was four and football had given me so much in my life, it is very hard to give it away.
When did you first get interested in becoming an Occupational Therapist? Did you manage to combine your studies with your football?
I studied whilst I played at Adelaide City from 94 until 99. I combined them because football in Australia was only semi-pro then. It was hard at times but also provided me with balance – when one wasn’t going so well I had the other to focus on and divert me. It grounded me and enabled me to relax and achieve my potential in both areas. I have had my own private paediatric occupational therapy business in Adelaide for over 10 years. I love my work with children and employ fourteen brilliant therapists and admin staff. Seeing and working with families and children with special needs is grounding, my life as a footballer was unbelievable but my work today is humbling and gives me a sense of purpose and drive.
I can see you are a follically challenged man (like my good self). How do you keep your head from getting sunburned? Sun hat, factor 50 or walking in the shade?
We have a famous commercial in Australia that says ‘slip slop slap’ which basically means ‘put on lots of sunscreen, wear a shirt and put on a hat!’
Finally, do you ever look out for the Walsall results?
Funny you should ask, I had a look again last week. The web has made this so easy. I’ve watched them go up down and sideways over the years! I always wish them well and hope in time that the Premier League calls. My football career has taught me to appreciate the fans – they cry, rejoice, love, hate and live every moment of their beloved club (often long after the players have moved on). The people behind the scenes are often unappreciated and undervalued, it is a fault of human nature. Football at its purest is about freedom of expression, unity and a common goal. Hard to remember in this climate but every Saturday, for me, it still feels like I’m playing in the biggest match of my life!
Thank you for the opportunity to relive my brief time at Walsall. I wish the club and the fans a successful new year.
There you go then. The mystery of Dino Mennillo is finally solved. What an absolute gent for agreeing to the interview and The Gilbert Alsop wishes him all the best for the future.